Setting as an extension of your main character’s mind.

“Every story would be another story, and unrecognizable if it took up its characters and plot and happened somewhere else.”  – Eudora Welty


Her’s Theodore Twombley, feeling cold and lonely when his relationship with Samantha, the operating system he’s fallen in love with, takes an unexpected turn.

We as writers all know that setting is one of the main literary components to storytelling, providing a specific time and place to give the story itself some form of context.  It’s also well known that, in certain circumstances, the setting can become a character in and of itself – 12 rooms, 12 vacancies anybody?  In other cases, a story’s setting can provide a dichotomy of contrasts for rich exploration such as a troubled, but poor genius working as a janitor at one of the most prestigious technical institutes in the world who’s smarter than the professors teaching there (Good Will Hunting.)  But there’s another element to setting that often goes unnoticed – and subsequently unused – by many writers: setting as an extension of the main character’s mind, or more specifically, as a representation of their inner conflicts and struggles.

In a previous discussion regarding The Shawshank Redemption, it was discussed how the world of the story itself, the prison, is the context in which the theme is placed: finding hope in the most hopeless of situations.  The dark, cold place is a reflection of Red’s worldview with regard to the theme, but also a mirror to his personal problem of conformity.  By conforming to the system in an attempt at some form of self-preservation, Red has given up any semblance of his authentic-self.  He, in essence, has become a prisoner in both mind, body and spirit – problems that continue to not only exist, but magnify, once he’s plopped down into a different setting altogether: the free world.  As a result, the prison – albeit a very real setting – acts as a metaphor for something larger than just physical imprisonment that Red must overcome.

In every scene that there is a ray of light, of hope, metaphorically or otherwise, it’s due to Andy’s presence.  It’s these sepia-toned moments – and their settings, drinking suds on the rooftop or “missing one’s friend” that clash and contrast with the bleakness of the daily prison existence, heightening Red’s inner conflict between the safety of institutionalism he’s come to know vs. the uncertainty of freedom he’s come to admire through Andy:


Christopher Nolan took the notion of imprisonment and made it both figurative and literal in his mind-bending film Inception, trapping his main character Dom Cobb inside his own dreams.  Physically, Cobb is a prisoner in the sense that he’s barred from seeing his children in the United States because of a murder charge – but it’s much more complicated in that he’s also prisoner to his feelings of guilt and the role he played in his wife’s death which results in his subconscious having a big impact on the story’s numerous settings.  The clip where Cobb explains the machinations of the setting to Ariadne below  exemplifies the very nature of the setting as an extension of one’s mind:


The world Cobb and Mal created together in the past from shared memories has turned into a crumbling sea-side paradise in the present representing their state of decay in his mind as he’s built a prison of memories to keep her locked away in.  Ariadne questions this, asking Cobb if he truly believes it will contain her – the runaway train Mal and Cobb discussed in their dreams from their time in limbo repeatedly manifests itself in various settings as a reminder of Cobb’s internal struggle:

Cobb:         “You’re waiting for a train. A train that will take you far away. You know where you hope the train will take you, but you can’t be sure. Yet it doesn’t matter. Now, tell me why?

Mal:            “Because we’ll be together!

Interestingly enough, the movie – about dreams and memories – opens on a beach and features the deteriorating dreamworld on its shores, giving it not only a sense of time working on physical elements, but spiritual as well (and of course, “Time” is perhaps the most popular track from the Hans Zimmer soundtrack – something that’s also an important element to The Shawshank Redemption.)


When we wound up on the shore of our own subconscious, we lost sight of what was real.  Limbo became her reality.

Going from limbo to permanently erasing one’s memories, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind also uses its settings to represent its main character’s state of mind – often to unique and hilarious effect – in a movie that seems almost the antithesis of Inception: whereas as Christopher Nolan’s film was about a team creating an idea by infiltrating someone’s dreams, Michel Gondry’s take on Charlie Kaufmann’s original screenplay somewhat inverts the notion by having a team specializing in erasing customer’s memories.  Of course things don’t go as planned and Joel Barrish attempts to hold onto at least one good memory of Clementine, the resulting story just as much a labyrinth of plot and character as Nolan’s Inception.


There’s something about trains and beaches as a reoccurring motif in some of these movies. Here, Joel Barish’s voice over marries with the bleak February setting in his desire to connect with someone who’s at a distance. “It’s God damn freezing on this beach. Montauk in February. Brilliant, Joel!” If only he could meet someone new…

Opening with Joel heading to the beach in Montauk on a train after having his memories of Clementine erased, the setting is bleak and cold – kind of reminding one why Valentines Day falls in the middle of the grey beast known as February.  The journey compelled by his subconscious and last words of Clementine, “meet me in Montauk,” as he desperately tries to hold onto his remaining memories of her, Joel admits to being in a funk – but not knowing why.  The rest of the film examines how he and Clementine got to where they are in terms of their life together and apart, the setting becoming increasingly more important as it takes on physical attributes of Joel’s memory much like Cobb’s dream world did for him in Inception.


Even the smaller moments in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind are filled with subtext via the setting.  In one particular scene early on, Clementine goads a wary Joel into having a “honeymoon on ice”.  Joel, trekking like a penguin out onto the ice, laments that he should go back, worried that the ice may break.  Clementine asks, “What if?  Do you really care right now?”  What we don’t realize yet is that Joel’s subconscious is impacting his present: the ice isn’t the only thing he’s worried about breaking and his reaction to the setting with Clementine is a result of having been in a relationship with her previously that left both erasing their memories of one another.

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“It’s not going to crack. Or break, or…it’s so thick.” Relationships often leave one feeling like they’re walking on thin ice…

Though not quite as cerebral in setting as Inception or Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Spike Jonze’s Her is nevertheless firmly rooted in science fiction and uses its story world to help shape Theodore Twombly’s inner conflict as a writer struggling to move on after a failed marriage.  Set in a futuristic Los Angeles, the film was also filmed in Shanghai to give it a futuristic, if not altogether alienating feel that helped to establish Theodore’s loneliness.  Whereas a beach in the middle of February with two people at opposite ends of the frame connotes a feeling of disconnect, so too does a man in a stark red coat lost in his melancholy thoughts and flanked by couples.


A city of high-rises and millions of people, yet no one to connect with.

Theodore is another example of a character imprisoned by his past, unable to let go and move on from his failed marriage. The story’s setting, particularly the technology and surroundings, help to convey the feeling of disconnect he has with others.  From playing video games by himself, calling into a char room service, or his work creating emotional cards for others, Theodore lives in a world that strangely seems to mirror our own with society’s increasingly reliance on technology for communication needs – and much to our own detriment.

Granted, the film’s story is not about technology per se, but about relationships and their inherently complex nature.  Theodore, through Samantha, experiences the ups and downs of a real relationship and the vulnerabilities that come with it (vulnerability being one of the key hurdles to Theodore’s inability to connect).  The story’s settings factor throughout his emotional journey: the sun-drenched scenes on the beach where he walks happily amongst the masses with Samantha in his pocket vs. the stark cold, snowy scene in the mountains when everything starts falling apart both serve as a reflection to what Theodore thinks and, perhaps more importantly, feels.  Despite how their relationship turns out, Theodore is able to grow from it and reconcile with his ex-wife and make an important connection by the end of the film.

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By film’s end, Theodore sits on higher ground with a better view of his world after having finally reached a level of awareness that allows him to be vulnerable and connect – or in this case reconnect – with another damaged soul.

Last but not least – and far removed from science fiction overtones – is Hal Ashby’s 1971 cult classic, black comedy Harold and Maude.  The main character, Harold, is a young man obsessed with death who falls for a 79 year old who’s equally obsessed with life.  Both share an odd passion for attending funerals, but for very different perspectives.  Harold’s infatuation with death causes him to enact any number of pseudo-suicides in an effort to obtain an emotional response from his socially affluent yet emotionally unavailable mother.  As we find out later in the film, it was Harold’s supposed death and bearing witness to his mother’s emotional reaction that seemingly gave him any sense of truly being loved, hence is “reenactments” to garner a similar reaction.

The setting for the film explores some of the counter-culture of its time, perhaps being one of the reasons it became the cult classic it is today.  As one might expect from a character obsessed with death, many of the film’s settings involve funerals and cemeteries – not to mention couch trips to the psychiatrist for Harold – all in an effort to help convey his inner sense of malaise.  Harold is, in essence, to The Shawshank Redemption‘s Red as Maude is to that film’s Andy Dufresne, a character imprisoned by his thoughts who’s drawn to another who provides a counterpoint.


Though never explicitly referenced, one quick insert shot of Maude’s arm gives us all the information we need in order to understand her perspective. The tattoo itself provides a rich sense of backstory, of time and place – of setting – without the need to go into further details.

Through Maude, the film’s settings take a different context via her attitude, beliefs and actions – all of which Harold finds himself drawn to.  In one memorable scene rich with symbolism, the two discuss flowers and which kind they each would prefer to be.  The contrasting settings – along with their answers – allow us a peek inside each of the inner workings of their minds:


Just as Harold falls in love with Maude, she informs him of her intention to die – something briefly hinted at early on – leaving him crestfallen in an ending that’s very reminiscent both tonally and structurally to Her: as with Theodore’s learning to be human and vulnerable through Samantha, so to has Harold with Maude.  Both are faced to make a choice to learn from their painful experiences and losses and to move on – and of course both end up physically, and metaphorically “at a higher level” as a result, Harold peering over the cliff to his destroyed “Jaguearse” below on the shore of the ocean – the motif reappearing once again as a symbol for renewal.


The last faux-suicide proves It’s better to be up there playing a banjo than down below, crashing amongst the waves.

In each of these instances, the films’ settings not only give its story a strong sense of time and place, but also a reflection and sense of the character’s inner struggles, too.  Some settings, such as those with Inception and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, are part of their story’s conceit as they take place directly in the mind itself.  Others, such as The Shawshank Redemption and Harold and Maude, use various settings in a more subtle ways through symbolism and subtext.

Whatever your setting may be for your own story, looking at it as an extension of your main character’s mind, perspective and inner conflict will enable you to more readily find those opportunities for subtext and symbolism, adding another level of richness to your story and making it a more cohesive work.  As Eudora Welty alluded to in the opening quote, make your settings count!














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Zen and the art of exorcising bad story analysis.

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”   – Ernest Hemingway

Scene From 'The Exorcist'

Some writers need this guy on their side.

In a prior article, Cracking A Beautiful Mind’s schizophrenic inciting incident, the distinction between goal and methodology to achieve it was briefly touched upon and how oftentimes one is confused with the other.  Misidentifying the story’s goal – either too broad or too narrow, if not completely – can skewer one’s interpretation of the story as a whole, something that would result in my 10th grade English teacher’s reaction: slamming a book onto the desk to emphasize each word, “No.  NO.  NO!  NOOOO!”  If only the rest of the world had the same English teacher…but I digress.

To borrow an analogy from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – if you want your story to run on all cylinders and perform smoothly, you can’t be a romanticist who’s merely enamored with what’s on the surface and relies on others to perform maintenance when it’s not working properly.  You have to be part classicist and immerse yourself in its underpinnings, its structure and how each piece contributes to the whole – and just like Phaedrus, the narrator in Robert Pirsig’s aforementioned book, you’ll become better adept at diagnosing, and resolving, problems with regards to your own story.  But you’re not going to get there unless, like Phaedrus, you take the time to metaphorically tear the engine apart and rebuild it – or in this case, stories.

A couple of years ago, a discussion with a fellow writer regarding The Exorcist ensued on a popular screenwriting blog.  While we agreed that the main character in the story was Father Karras, the other writer believed the character wasn’t very well executed and that  he was rather inactive towards pursing the story’s goal for most of film.  The goal, as they believed it to be, was to perform an exorcism on Regan.  The problem with this analysis – and it’s not the first time I’ve seen it for this particular story – is that it negates the entire journey for Father Karras’s character which connects his personal problem with the story’s resolution, giving us what William Peter Blatty admitted the story’s “secret message” to be about: faith.


I’m outta here. This girl, she needs an exorcism – not a priest who’s lost faith. Oh wait a minute, I better go back because a priest rediscovering his faith through the existence of evil is what the story is REALLY about.

It’s one thing to look at a film with a posteriori knowledge, knowing what happens and that an exorcism is required as the solution – it is, after all, called “The Exorcist,” even though it does not actually accomplish the goal.   We need to keep in mind the solution is not readily apparent to the characters in the story, otherwise an exorcist would have been called in early on and saved us from the experiencing the journey toward understanding the problem – particularly through the eyes of the main character, a priest, who himself has lost faith and has become reliant and psychology as a means to resolve problems. In simple terms, we cannot merely say the goal is the solution.  The solution is the act that’s taken to accomplish the goal.

In The Exorcist, the goal is not to perform an exorcism because the characters themselves don’t know what’s wrong with Regan.  As the Dramatica Theory of Story notes, much of a story is dedicated to characters dealing with a particular problem’s symptoms before they can ever address the problem itself.  Much like Phaedrus riding a sputtering motorcycle, a certain level of diagnostics is required – sometimes testing hypothesis to assess and try to ascertain what the true problem is.  What are all the things that might cause an engine to sputter?   This is why in the health care profession, doctors are said to be “practicing” medicine, for they don’t know how to treat an ailment until they know what the underlying problem is for sure – and as we all know, problems often share numerous symptoms but require vastly different treatments.

Likewise, we cannot say the story goal is to find out what’s wrong with Regan, for that’s merely half the battle.  The goal therefore needs to be somewhat specific – yet be the basis for the journey and actions taken pursuant to accomplishing it.  The trick is it needs to be such that it encompasses the main character’s flaw/personal problem in a way that ties their journey thematically to the actions required (plot) to satisfy the story goal.  In this case, “saving Regan” requires not an exorcism at all, but a literal leap of faith on Father Karras’s behalf after being possessed himself  (It should be noted that not all stories end successfully.  Those that result in failure often do so with the intent of showing us how/why via a character’s refusal to change or, in rare cases, making the erroneous decision to do so when he was on the right path all along.)


By allowing the story to explore the nature of Regan’s malady, the audience – as well as the main character – are afforded opportunities to see the problem from various perspectives: is it an illness?  Is it psychological?  Is it demonic possession?  All of these are touched upon, forcing Father Karras to confront his own lack of faith after the death of his elderly mother.  The evidence mounts while other explanations are exhausted, leaving Karras with only one choice: to accept it as a demonic possession, which, in turn, as Blatty exclaims in his op-ed, spurs the notion if demons exist, then so too must God. To forgo all these prerequisites would be to strip the story of its meaning – particularly through Father Karras’s struggles – leaving us with a story that sputters along until it stalls on the page with the author (reader or even viewer) kicking dirt, left only to cherish a romanticized view without any inkling how to get it up and running again.

As Pirsig ultimately realizes in his book, both romanticism and classicism are needed – just as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars needed both the force and an x-wing fighter to destroy the Death Star.  To become proficient at anything, one must develop their own analytical toolbox – constantly seeking to know details, understand inner workings and master the mechanics – but marrying that knowledge with their creative inspiration and intuition. Sure classicism sounds dull and tedious, much like like motorcycle maintenance itself does, but the notion is applicable to so much more – including writing.  Being a better “story mechanic?”  That was ultimately my English Teacher’s goal for our class despite the methodology (bang bang BANG BANG!) she often applied on our journey to get there.

Posted in Dramatica, Journey, Story Structure, Theme | 5 Comments

The audience’s perspective: North By Northwest and dramatic irony.

“It all depends on how we look at things, and not how they are in themselves.”

-Carl Jung


I don’t think it’s George Kaplan flying that plane.

Much discussion has been given to the function of the main character’s perspective, what the Dramatica theory of story would consider the influence character and the argument made between their clashing perspectives (the two-hander approach or relationship throughline) – but there’s also a fourth realm that looks at a story, what Dramatica considers the Objective or Overall Story throughline, that represents a dispassionate view of a story that sees characters by their archetypal functions (protagonist, antagonist, guardian, etc.)  The theory book itself is available online for free here and is well worth reading, particularly for its examination of the different perspectives and the analogy of story as a battlefield – in which in this particular case, the Objective view is likened to a General on a hill overlooking the battle (story) unfold, seeing various strategies unfold.  This perspective, accompanied with the other three more intimate looks, gives the audience a complete view of the story and, as we’ll examine with Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, allows the audience an opportunity to become all the more engaged through the use of dramatic irony.

A literary device, dramatic irony is where an audience is given a piece of information that at least one of the characters in the story is unaware of, resulting in the audience knowing more than one of the characters and placing them one step ahead “in the story.”  This, in turn, often leads to suspense and ironic humor (often through dialogue), ultimately creating anticipation for the viewer and leaving them wanting to know what happens next.

In order to accomplish this, however, the audience needs to have a perspective of the overall story that the character in question does not, hence their awareness of “the bigger picture” from an objective view as seen outside from the characters themselves.   As is with much of storytelling, when, why, where, and how the information is parsed throughout the story has a huge impact on audience reception: withhold too much information for too long, an audience’s patience may be tested for an understanding of motivation and drive may be lacking.  Too much, too soon may result in a similar effect, an audience left frustrated wondering when the characters will catch up.  One of the keys to success, as notably demonstrated in North By Northwest, is to continually introduce new information to the audience that other characters aren’t aware of.

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A case of mistaken identity sets the story in motion.

A case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time leads to mistaken identity and kidnapping in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic tale when advertising exec Roger Thornhill calls for a porter who, in turn, has a message for one George Kaplan.  Having spent the first several minutes of the film exploring Roger’s personal perspective as the main character, we get a taste of the overall story and things to come when Roger raises his hand at the wrong time – the story’s perspective shifting briefly to the two, previously unassuming, men lurking in the background.  Roger’s desire to send a telegram to his mother is misconstrued, his hand raised giving the false perception to the two kidnappers trying to smoke the mysterious Kaplan out that he is their man.

From this point on, the overall story’s scope continually increases – along with the dramatic irony – as we’re privy to the kidnappers’ mistake.  This leaves Roger confused and, due to the ensuing circumstances, with the desire to both clear his name and find out more about this George Kaplan he’s been mistaken for.

After surviving an attempt on his life, via drunk driving of all things, we’re introduced to the biggest skeptic to Roger’s story: his own mother.  Her perspective of her son is less than favorable, leading to an instance of humor from dramatic irony when Roger and she find themselves in the same elevator as the kidnappers.  The audience knows this, but Roger’s skeptical mother doesn’t – and his efforts to convince her result in her blurting incredulously for everyone to hear, “You two aren’t really trying to kill my son, are you?”

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Not one to believe her son’s story, Roger’s mother doubtfully ask his would-be-killers if they’re really trying to kill him.

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“Why, yes in fact we are!” isn’t something one would expect these two to answer with, so they do the logical: laugh.

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The kidnappers’ laughter signals the absurdity of the notion, resulting in everyone else’s own laughter.

At the first act turn, Roger finds the real Lester Townsend, the man he believed responsible for kidnapping him, at the United Nations.  This comes as a surprise to the audience who learns of this information at the same time Roger does – but from an objective story viewpoint, we see one of the kidnappers throw a knife into Townsend’s back, killing him.  Roger is caught “red-handed,” so to speak with the bloody-knife by a photographer – the rest of the attendees given the false perception that Roger’s guilty, thus sending him on the run.

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Caught in the act…of holding a knife. With a dead diplomat at his feet. Appearances – from varying perspectives – can be deceiving.

Up until this point the story has only a sprinkling of objective events – focusing on more of Roger’s perspective and easing him, and subsequently the audience, into the growing mystery from his point of view.  We’re very much in the dark just as he is with regards to who George Kaplan is and why he’s a wanted man wanted dead.  But that all changes when we’re given a more detailed, objective view point from other characters within the overall story.  Roger being far removed from this storyline at this point allows the story to shift focus as we’re provided with the much needed information as to whom George Kaplan is and what’s really going on which, in turn, raise the stakes.  From this point, it’s less a mystery now that the context of the story has been revealed, but the Hitchcock and his writer, Ernest Lehman, continue to milk dramatic irony for all that it is worth.

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The masterminds behind “George Kaplan,” the United States Intelligence Agency.  “How can one be mistaken for George Kaplan when George Kaplan doesn’t even exist?”

George Kaplan, as it turns out, is a fictional character devised by US Intelligence to throw Phillip Vandamm, the real man responsible for Roger’s kidnapping, off the scent of their very-much-alive agent working right underneath his nose.  Furthermore, we learn that Roger’s incidental involvement, though to his own detriment, has helped the cause and that the intelligence agency finds it best to let it play out without their involvement so as to not cause any uncertainty towards Kaplan’s existence – otherwise their own agent may risk exposure and assassination.  Roger, it seems, is on his own…until meeting a sympathetic blond on a train in the form of Eve Kendall.

Eve, as it turns out, is the real agent who is never explicitly revealed until much later so most viewers not keen on story structure are less likely to suspect her as such.  In fact, after she charms Roger – but before her role as an agent is revealed – the audience is given a major jolt of dramatic irony around the midpoint when she passes a note along to none other than Vandamm.

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Eve’s note to Vandamm spells trouble for Roger.

At this point, the audience is lead to believe Eve’s working on behalf of Vandamm, knowledge that is obviously unsuspected or known to Roger which sets up “the morning” and one of the more suspenseful sequences in motion pictures: the infamous crop-dusting scene.  Given explicit instructions by Eve, Roger is to meet “Kaplan” at Prairie Stop on a highway, 3:30pm sharp.  Although we don’t know the specifics, Eve’s alignment with Vandamm suggests it can’t be good – this much we know for certain.

What ensues is a nearly ten-minute exercise in suspense as Roger arrives on the lonely road only to be met with a series of red herrings, the suspense and tension growing with each one until a man standing opposite the road of him makes note the oddity that a crop-duster is dusting crops where there isn’t any.  Before long, the man disappears on a bus and Roger is alone…with the crop-duster barreling down and taking aim at him.


Come here often?

That Eve would send Roger to such a fate only reiterates our assumptions of her alignment with Vandamm, but when her real function is ultimately revealed later, we can see how it’s indicative of the US Intelligence’s handling of the situation in order to protect her: she, just as much as they, are acting in self-preservation.  That Roger would survive and show up to antagonize Vandamm at an auction with Eve herself present endangers the mission – and potentially her life – when Vandamm’s henchman asks if Roger was in Eve’s room, to which he replies, “Sure, isn’t everyone?”

Vandamm’s gaze and slow withdrawal of his touch upon Eve, both unseen by Roger, suggests trouble for her as we may have began suspecting her playing an entirely different function by this point.  But Roger, not knowing the truth, can’t help but twist the knife of betrayal and taunts Vandamm by asking him how much he’s paid for her, noting “She’s worth every dollar, take it from me.  She puts her heart into her work.  In fact her whole body into it.”  It’s only when the professor, head of the US Intelligence team, later informs Roger that Eve is their agent and his actions may have put her life in danger that he’s fully able to understand the gravity of his actions.

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The moment Roger realized what the audience began to suspect some time ago: Eve’s the agent working under Vandamm’s nose, and Thornhill’s actions inadvertently has put her life in danger.

Seeking to help the professor save Eve, Roger agrees to a “hair-brained scheme” that occurs at the end of the second act, adding yet another layer of dramatic irony as his public “confrontation” with Eve in Vandamm’s presence leads her to fire a blank shot at him.  The professor, playing a bystander, is the first to check Roger, declaring him dead with a mere shake of his head while Vandamm’s henchman bears witness to the confirmation.

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Shoot now and ask questions later, like “did it hurt when you fell?”

Of course it’s all an elaborate ruse in an attempt to clear Eve of any suspicion from Vandamm and sets up the suspenseful finale: the audience knows Eve still has to play her role and is scheduled to leave with Vandamm later that night, but wants to see Roger’s desire to save her fulfilled despite that not being part of the plan.  The problem: he’s supposed to be dead.

As a result of the dramatic irony – we know Roger is alive but Vandamm doesn’t, nor does Eve realize Roger is there trying to save her.  The stakes are fully known by the audience, privy to everything at this point, as we realize if Vandamm and his men see Roger, the ruse will not only be over, but Eve’s life as well having been an accomplice to it which raises the question: how will Vandamm find out (it’s dramatically inevitable) and what will happen when he does?

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Leonard, played by Martin Landeau, discovers Eve’s gun and proves his doubts to Vandamm (James Mason) while Roger looks on.

As with any good set-up, the blank-shooting gun pays off as the means by which the scheme is ultimately discovered.  This time, however, Roger is privy to this knowledge along with the audience, but Eve – whose life is at risk – is the one left in the dark.  Now the dramatic irony twists the screws tighter yet again from Roger’s perspective, begging the question: how will he alert Eve that Vandamm is onto her without being caught?

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Another set up, another pay off. ROT says it all. We know what it means, but Leonard doesn’t as he finds the matchbook on the floor and casually drops it into the ashtray where Eve sees it – and Roger O Thornhill’s message on the inside flap.

Perhaps Hitchcock’s most entertaining film, North By Northwest remains so partly due to its usage of dramatic irony throughout its telling.  Each of its act breaks, along with the midpoint, push the story into a new direction in a way that engages the audience by letting them know more information than the major players involved – creating questions in their minds as to what will happen next while keeping them in suspense through a series of set ups and pay offs.  Understanding these various perspectives in a story will undoubtedly help one to master the art of its telling, specifically with regards to who knows what, when they know it and how they know it – with particular focus on audience reception to maximize their own involvement.








Posted in Dramatic Irony, Dramatica, Hitchcock, Perspective, Story Structure, Techniques and Devices | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Machiavellianism and The Usual Suspects.

“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.”

-Roger “Verbal” Kint, The Usual Suspects, Screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie


The gang’s all here.

Much effort has been made to define empathy and how its ability to emotionally connect characters to one another and subsequently drawing an audience deeper into a story – as well as its ability to cause both cognitive dissonance with a main character’s obsessive drive as with Scottie in Hitchcock’s Vertigo where the audience’s empathy suddenly shifts to the murderer’s accomplice.  While most of the discussion so far has been focused on the positive attributes as they pertain to story structure based on audience perspective, there are, as we’re about to see, negative attributes that can be just as powerful in telling a compelling story, creating multi-dimensional characters  full of surprises.

Empathy itself is one of the cornerstones of something larger called Emotional Intelligence (EQ).  Not long ago, psychologists began to understand what we know as IQ isn’t necessarily the biggest indicator of success and that there’s a social factor involved – one needs to look no further than perhaps John Nash in A Beautiful Mind for an exemplary motion picture – and that the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior has a large bearing on one’s success as well.

In her recent Psychology Today article, The Dark Side of Emotional Intelligence, Denise Cummins, Ph.D., notes

The problem is that EQ is “morally neutral”. It can be used to help, protect, and promote oneself and others, or it can be used to promote oneself at the cost of others. In its extreme form, EQ is sheer Machiavellianism–the art of socially manipulating others in order to achieve one’s own selfish ends. When used in this way, other people become social tools to be used to push oneself forward even at considerable expense to them.

One way to think of Machiavellianism is via the term “puppet master;” they’re the ones behind the scenes pulling the strings and controlling perceptions of others, manipulating them to determine a specific outcome.  As notable documentary filmmaker Ken Burns has said, “All story is manipulation” – but within the constructs of the story and its telling, we need to have means which to manipulate and create deception through.  If you’ve been reading the other postings on this blog, you can probably see where this is going: deception is based on perception which, in turn, is rooted in perspective – and the main character who wraps this all together in The Usual Suspects is Roger “Verbal” Kint.


Cunning and deceitful, Verbal’s eyes are constantly shifting – searching – trying to stay one step ahead of Agent Kujon. Those with Machevillian tendencies often have what appears to be the ability to read other’s minds due to their higher than normal cognitive empathy (vs. lower affective empathy, where one actively feels as the other does, too.)

What makes Verbal Kint a compelling character is both the way McQuarrie has him seemingly manipulated by others throughout the story – and how in turn this manipulates us, the viewer, only to have the curtain pulled back to reveal he was the mastermind all along, controlling every thought and move throughout the story.

As discussed previously, much of what the audience thinks, feels and believes is a direct result of the relationships between characters on the screen and how they react to one another with particular regards to the main character.  Those relationships in turn exist to construct the deceit – and it’s to McQuarrie’s credit that Verbal Kint is ultimately a character society would deem as a villain, but comes across as a small-time crook we not only sympathize with for most of the story, but marvel at once the story’s final card is revealed.

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An early set-up allows the filmmakers to manipulate the audience when Verbal is introduced sans the ability to hold a gun.

When looking back at the film and analyzing its structure, we can see how these elements came together and set the deception in motion from the very opening scene from the filmmaker’s perspective:

1) “The Walk” – the gunman easily walks down the stairs much like a normal person.  When we’re introduced to Verbal later, we’ll discover he has cerebral palsy which inhibits his ability to walk normally.  While it serves as a function for deception, the disability also casts Verbal as “meek” and a character who we might sympathize with.

2) “The lighter” – the gunman flicks the lighter as he lights a cigarette.  As we’ll find out later, Verbal’s condition has left him (seemingly) unable to flick-a-bic, so to speak.

3) “The gun” – The gunman pulls a gun, switches hands and aims at Dean Keaton.  The narrative later also makes note of Verbal’s inability to shoot a gun, much less hold one steady…or so we’re lead to believe.

4) “Keyser – Keaton mocks the gunman, calling him “Keyser” in a tone that suggests he’s not who he says he is (in this case, Keaton knows it’s Verbal in having seen his face and is smart enough to connect all the dots realize who’s really been pulling the strings.

5) “The unreliable narrator” – in the present, we see Verbal’s the one recounting what happened.  Much like Red in The Shawshank Redemption, we’re immediately cued into his perspective of events – and through the course of the telling of the story, we’ll see firsthand why this device is once again paramount to the narrative and thematic elements.

These five points help set up McQuarrie’s Machiavellian tale, but in a story like this dealing with a cast of criminals that delve into anti-social behavior, the audience still needs a character to feel the emotions through in order to become active – and unknowing – participants to the deception.  Enter two factors: the mythos of Keyser Söze and Agent Kujan.  By allowing Verbal to “tell” a story within the story, McQuarrie cued in Verbal’s, and therefore the audience’s, fear for Söze via the slaughtering of his own family and creation of a mythos whereas the name itself became synonymous with a spook story criminals told their kids at night.  “Rat on your pop and Keyser Söze will get you.”

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“Keaton always said, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of him.’ Well I believe in God…and the only thing that scares me is Rollo Tomasi…er…wait, that was another noirish crime thriller.”

While these guys may be a rag-tag bunch of criminals, they pale in comparison to the exploits of Söze who seems to have every one of their numbers; he is something of an omnipresent force, the “Wizard of Oz” behind the curtain pulling strings.  These guys are small potato low-lifes in comparison, but it’s their sense of inescapable dread that permeates the narrative as told by Verbal, the victimized cripple who didn’t belong amongst them in the first place while noting the line-up itself giving him a chance to feel “notorious.”

Conversely, Kujan is the hard-boiled Customs Agent who has his own perspective of the events and a suspect in mind. Determined to get his questions answered, he blatantly manipulates and belittles Verbal to serve his own purpose: to pin the crime on Dean Keaton, a man he’s been after for years.  In one condescending speech, Kujan threatens Verbal with “Let me get right to the point.  I’m smarter than you.  And I’m going to find out what I want to know and I’m going to get it from you whether you like it or not.”  Later he relishes the opportunity to rub Verbal’s apparent exploitation in when “breaking” him to confess Keaton was behind everything, “Because you’re a cripple, Verbal.  Because you’re stupid.  Because you’re weaker than them.”  As we eventually find out, nothing could be further from the truth.

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Let me tell you what I know. Or, in other words, l’ll give you my perspective.

Just like Sam Loomis badgering of Norman Bates in Psycho or Scottie’s obsessive drive toward making Judy over in Vertigo, the adverse treatment of one character towards another can cause cognitive dissonance in the audience – cops are suppose to be good guys after all, but Kujan’s acting like the bad guy here – thus allowing the audience to, at the very least, sympathize for the character on the receiving end.  Whereas Verbal is colored with sympathetic traits – soft voice, crippling condition, sense of humor, easily victimized – Kujan is brash, arrogant and single-minded, attributes that make him less agreeable to audiences despite the fact he’s supposed to be the good guy/law-enforcer.

Structurally, Kujan’s perspective that Keaton was behind the boat massacre mirrors Verbal’s telling of Keyser Söze’s backstory,  providing a counter-argument and planting the seeds for whom the audience will be mislead to believe the mastermind was.

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The man who would be Keyser. Well, at least in Agent Kujan’s mind – with a little helping hand from Verbal.

AGENT KUJAN:  Let me tell you something.  I know Dean Keaton.  I’ve been investigating him for the past three years.  The guy I know is a cold-blooded bastard.  IED indicted him on three counts of murder before he was kicked off the force…Dean Keaton was under indictment a total of seven times while he was on the force.   In every case, witnesses either reversed their testimony to the grand jury, or died before they could testify.  When they finally did nail him for fraud, he spent five years in Sing Sing.  He killed three prisoners inside.  Of course, I can’t prove this – but I can’t prove the best part, either: Dean Keaton was dead.  Did you know that?  He died in a fire, two years ago during the investigation into the murder of a witness who as going to testify against him.  Two people saw Dean Keaton walk into a warehouse just before it blew up.  They said he went in to check a leaking gas main.  It blew up and took all of Dean Keaton with it.  Within three months of the explosion, the two witnesses – they were dead.  One killed himself in his car, the other fell down an open elevator shaft.

On first viewing, I don’t think anyone would have guessed the actual plot would have been exposed so openly – yet there it is, hidden amongst dialogue, Kujan himself a bit of an unreliable narrator since he readily admits he can’t prove his story making it somewhat of a myth in its own right.  But somewhere in the middle of these two perspectives we have a bit of objective truth: the other survivor in the hospital knows the identity of Keyser Söze and the mere mentioning of his name, referring to him as “the devil,” causes both a visceral (high blood pressure) and emotional (fear) reaction.

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An objective view-point of the myth that is Keyser Söze.

Dr. Martin Kildare, Chair of Organizational Behavior at University College London, noted that emotionally intelligent people

intentionally shape their emotions to fabricate favorable impressions of themselves…The strategic disguise of one’s own emotions and the manipulation of others’ emotions for strategic ends are behaviors evident not only on Shakespeare’s stage but also in the offices and corridors where power and influence are traded.

As noted, Kujan and Verbal work this to both ends.  Kujan’s anger and self-righteousness is often masked by a fabricated “good cop” in order to manipulate Verbal into telling his story which he then attempts to manipulate to fit his own agenda with Keaton.  The problem is, Kujan is nowhere near as adept at masking his intentions as Verbal who goes so far as to play not only the victim, but the fool in an attempt to play off Kujan’s superiority complex and ultimately getting the best of him.

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How do you shoot the Devil in the back? What if you miss?

While Verbal is ultimately portrayed as having a high IQ in pulling off his deception, the character’s – and film’s – success is due in part to EQ and his ability to discern emotions in others which opens the door to manipulation.  In other words, IQ may be what enabled him to put the plan together – but it was EQ that allowed him to carry it out. This, in turn, enabled the filmmakers – the real puppet masters – to create a compelling, complex and memorable character who is more intellectually engaging than the typical one-note villain who relies on brute force, able to pull strings and control/manipulate those around him – including the audience.

Posted in Emotional Intelligence (EQ), Empathy, Perspective, Story Structure | Tagged , , , , , | 5 Comments

How Pixar surprisingly missed the mark with empathy in Toy Story 3.

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison 


It must have taken hours to get the cast all lined up for this photo.

I remember stepping out into the hot desert heat from the Red Rock Resort Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas on the afternoon of June 23, 2010 after having watched Toy Story 3 – but it wasn’t necessarily the heat that struck me.  No, it was something else – something about the movie that left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth that I couldn’t quite put my  finger on.  While I enjoyed it, as many others in attendance did, I couldn’t help but feel something was, well…off.  Upon watching it a second time, I had a better understanding why I felt the way I did and putting it into context – a huge summer family film – left me scratching my head as to what the folks at Pixar were actually thinking with some of their story choices.

My concern stemmed from the film’s misuse of empathy, choosing to take a tone centered on vengeance or “comeuppance” that is perhaps a reflection of our society in general – but hardly the qualities and attributes one might expect from a spectacle like the Toy Story Trilogy that is catered toward children more so than adults.  As discussed in the previous article, that a film such as The Woodsman was able to take an unsympathetic character in Walter – a recently released child molester who’s just served twelve years in prison – and allow for him a measure of forgiveness and redemption begs the question: why couldn’t Pixar do the same for a strawberry-scented teddy bear?

The problem begins with the awkwardly-conceived revelation of Lotso’s backstory.  I say awkward because its function in the story is not very clear considering the outcome.  What it does, however, is provide a perspective of how Lotso became the iron-paw ruler of Sunnyside he is today.  Its immediate function is to alert Woody to the problems his friends face at Sunnyside since he assumed he left them in good hands.  When the toys  divulge Sunnyside to be a place of despair, Woody asks them “how do you know that?” –   but rather than giving them firsthand accounts of their own experiences, they turn to Chuckles the clown to recant Lotso’s sad story:

Woody could have easily discerned the trouble his friends were in had the other toys recanted their own personal tales – but Pixar opted to include a two-and-a-half minute flashback to give both Woody and the audience Lotso’s backstory, creating – at least for the audience – a sense empathy.  Do we like what Lotso has become?  No, but we have an understanding of why he became the way he is via the emotions expressed – but the filmmakers were just teasing us with any hope of Lotso’s redemption, making the backstory’s inclusion a somewhat frustrating experience.  Empathy, after all, is an agent for change – allowing us to see another’s perspective and understand it, sometimes to the point it makes us feel compassion toward them despite the things they’ve done.

When Woody has a chance to confront Lotso, he merely recants the story told to him, vehemently noting that Daisy only replaced Lotso and not the others.  What’s striking about this is the fact that here was an opportunity for Woody to empathize with Lotso and try to influence him to change, for Woody himself knows what it feels like to be “replaced” – that was essentially what the original Toy Story was about with the introduction of Buzz Lightyear.  In this sense, Woody’s dealt with the same sense of jealously as Lotso towards new toys (and toys in general),  just not to the same degree – which would have made him a perfect mentor for facilitating change.

Furthermore, Lotso represents the negative arc of what happens when one can’t let go and move on  (a theme that plays throughout the film with both toys and humans, Andy the cornerstone of each.)  Having been forgotten on a picnic, Lotso eventually finds he’s been replaced and lets jealously twist his heart, making life for any “new toy” as miserable as he possibly can.  Rather than make an any attempt to be “re-discovered” by Daisy, Lotso leaves – projecting his abandonment onto Daisy when he later says she abandoned him.

For Woody, this has thematic relevance because he’s refusing to let go of Andy and argues his point that the toys should be there for him despite the fact that Andy himself has grown older and will be moving on to another phase of his life.  Such a dichotomy should have made Woody more empathetic toward Lotso’s plight, especially considering the similar predicament he’s faced with himself: will he be able to let go of Andy and move on himself?

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Rather than show empathy toward Lotso from his own personal experience, Woody uses second-hand knowledge with angry finger-pointing that only stirs the bees’ nest – not a good illustration for solving conflict regardless of who’s right and wrong.

There were all sorts of angles to be explored here contrasting Woody/Lotso, but the  interesting narrative choices continued down a unredeemable path.  Once the toys are thrown together and face their imminent doom, Woody does the expected and lends a hand to Lotso, saving him.  Lotso, in turn, seems grateful, yet humbled with his “thank you, sheriff” – finally the bear with a heart that seemed worthy of being saved that was hinted at in his backstory prior to being lost.

This continues into the next story beat as Lotso notices the button that needs to be pushed that could save them all.  The focus of the scene, Lotso courageously makes his way upstream, yelling “Sheriff!  The button – help me!”  Getting the needed boost from Woody and Buzz, the filmmakers let Lotso reach the top – inches from earning redemption and becoming a hero – only to have him turn vile again.  And for what?  Prolonging the toys’ collective sense of doom, only to have a deus ex machina moment with a claw?

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Annakin Skywalk…, er, Lotso Huggin turns to the dark side of the force. Unlike Darth Vader, there will be no redemption for Lotso despite having an empathetic backstory.

Like most villains in any given movie, the filmmakers gave Lotso his “just desserts” as he found himself picked up by a garbageman and strapped to the front of the truck, horrified with the thought of his open mouth catching flies.  While the resolution to Lotso’s story thread  provided for a humorous story beat, it’s quickly forgotten as the central story’s more heartfelt resolution unfolds with Woody et al saying goodbye to Andy.  This ending, regardless of whatever happened to Lotso, was immensely satisfying – to the degree it’s what made most people leaving the theater feeling the way they did…even if there was a slight bitter aftertaste in Losto’s some people’s mouth.

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I’m still not sure what prompted the filmmakers to come up with this fate for Lotso. Is it what the audience really wanted to see after learning of his backstory?

In an article written in Psychology Today, Vengeance in Disneyland?, David Lunberg Kenrick noted

A recent study by Mario Gollwitzer and Markus Denzler compared two theories of what makes revenge bitter or sweet: According to the “comparative suffering”  hypothesis, we will feel better if the person who hurts us has something bad befall him, even if we had no hand in it.  According to the “understanding” hypothesis, we will feel better if our offender signals that he understands why he was being smitten.  Using a measure of implicit goal satisfaction, they found that people felt better onlytheir offender understood the reason for his punishment.  This research suggests that, if a movie-maker wants to make revenge feel good for the audience, the perpetrator should express understanding.  That didn’t happen in Toy Story 3.

David Lunberg Kenrick’s point puts the focus of empathy onto Lotso’s shoulders, which could very well have enabled Lotso to express regret – but even so, that understanding could have been facilitated by Woody.  As is, the back and forth of perspectives between the two is never resolved and leads nowhere other than a false sense of hope: Lotso appears to be humbled and change, only to cling to his perspective that toys aren’t meant to be loved.  He never truly sees beyond the walls he’s erected as defense mechanisms to keep himself from ever being hurt again and believing it’s the way it ought to be for every toy.  In that sense, he shares the same ideology of “sticking together” as Woody, but his methodology, the way he chooses to go about fulfilling this is drastically different.

Kenrick goes further to explain

There’s of course, another alternative to the revenge route.  It’s going the way of positive psychology– and forgiving your offender.  University of Miami psychologist Mike McCullough reviews evidence that people who forgive are more agreeable and emotionally stable than the unforgiving.  McCullough also reports that we’re more likely to forgive another if we feel empathy, if we make generous attributions about our offender, and if we don’t ruminate on how he or she done us wrong.

Reading this passage alone, one would almost think he was talking about the scene in The Woodsman between Walter and Robin, an R-rated movie with strong sexual content vs. G-rated family fantasy.  This is ultimately the power of empathy as an agent for change – something that should be weighed with a critical eye when using in a story with regards to audience reception.  Having Woody as that vessel for empathy and change would have tied the series together in a more meaningful way had he reminded the toys that, at one time, felt anger towards him as well because of his jealousy of Buzz in the original Toy Story.


Hey, remember that time when I was afraid Andy was going to replace me as his favorite toy with Buzz? I was a bit of a jerk, too.

As Kenrick concludes, what we want in a kid’s movie is positive psychology – especially considering the power of story and narrative to influence behaviors.  That the filmmakers went the “vengeance” route speaks perhaps as a reflection of our society in general; we’re very much “an eye for an eye” in terms of retribution, always seeking some form of retribution against the unjust.   It would be a shame if the filmmakers fashioned their outcome for Lotso based on test screenings, catering to an expectation of this kind of comeuppance rather than something more positive that facilitates healing and growth.  After all, as writers, we know that what a character wants is very rarely what it actually needs…and the same could often be said of audiences, too.

Posted in Empathy, Perspective, Story Structure, Theme | 7 Comments

Scene analysis: The Woodsman – empathy done right.

“For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.”

 –Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being


The past is never farther than the bounce of a red, rubber ball for Walter in The Woodsman.

The Woodsman is not an easy movie to watch.  Its main character, Walter, played by Kevin Bacon, tries to adjust and assimilate back into society after twelve years in prison.  That Walter has a dark secret – he’s a child molester – along with urges he continually fights to control, make him a rather unsympathetic character as his inner turmoil often results in a curt and abrasive outward persona towards others.  Yet, in the midst of all we can’t help but let the film’s dramatic question, will Walter succumb to his desires once again, draw us in despite a host of his undesirable traits causing a level of discomfort with the viewer.

In a previous article, Empathy: your story’s best friend and matchmaker for your audience,  I noted some of the ways in which to build empathy for a character that may otherwise seem unrelatable – some of which are present in The Woodsman in an effort to understand what Walter is up against in his quest for redemption:

1) Vulnerability: Having just been released from prison, Walter finds himself in a job with a thankless boss who tells him straight up: the only reason why he’s got a job is because of the good work he did for his father.  Nobody else knows Walter’s secret, but there’s plenty of prying eyes scoping out the new guy who just prefers to be left alone.  It isn’t long before he’s painted as “damaged goods.”

2) Unjust treatment: This one may depend on the individual viewer and their own perceptions of justice as undoubtedly there will be those who have absolutely no empathy/sympathy or desire to understand Walter or his like, but for the sake of analyzing the story – Walter’s done twelve years.  Despite the anger he harbors within, we get a sense of where some of it comes from when it becomes clear that once the cat is out of the bag, certain people – even the Sergeant assigned to check in on him – seem intent on watching him fail in his recovery to the point they come off as having questionable morals and perhaps more negative traits than he does.   Their actions are immediate so we have an opportunity to witness and feel them whereas Walter’s happened years ago, the audience never privy to them which – despite their seriousness – diminish the impact, if at least somewhat, and we we’re not able to readily “judge” him with the same sense of immediacy as the others.  What makes this tilt empathy slightly to Walter is–

3) Change: The fact he’s making an effort to change.  He has uncomfortable exchanges with a workplace fling in Vicki (played by real-life wife Kyra Sedgwick), with the Sgt. assigned to look over him as well as with other co-workers, a brother-in-law and a therapist – most of the conflict a result of his own demons, but he never chooses to succumb to them completely – giving us some hope he’ll find redemption.

4) Suffering: There’s no doubt that Walter is suffering from both his past exploits and his current state of affairs via the motif of the reoccurring bouncing red ball.  While as viewers we might distance ourselves from what Walter has done, we still connect on some level to the notion of fighting inner compulsions and urges – regardless of what they may be.  There’s also a sense that Walter is willing to suffer in silence than have a negative impact on another’s life, such as Vicki’s, with is attempts to push her away speaking to a low level of self-worth.  As we’ll see at the climax, Walter flat out hates himself.

5) Authenticity: Despite his secret, Walter acts authentic and refuses to put on a false front.  Even when he’s talking to an eleven year old girl, he’s incredibly straight-forward and honest in answering her questions – though perhaps not giving her enough of a context to put them in that would make her run away.  In short, Walter knows his short-comings and knows why people won’t accept him which is ultimately what drives his fearful behavior: push them away and keep your distance before they have an opportunity to do so first…because they’ll never understand.


The external pressures Walter faces pale in comparison to the demons he battles within as he searches for forgiveness and redemption.

None of these make Walter “likable” the least bit – but they do provide us with the context to understand him in, especially when the external pressure mounts (co-workers finding out) along with the internal pressures (the urges, inability to cope.)  When we learn early on Walter’s living across the street from a grade-school, it doesn’t strike us because we don’t know what his secret is – but when we find out, we’re left to wonder…when will Walter’s demons get the best of him?

Just slightly over half-way into the movie, Walter follows a young girl into a park.  He has a brief discussion with her, but she quickly becomes uneasy when he declares himself “a people watcher” rather than a bird watcher like she and excuses herself, noting her father likes her home before dark.  This, of course, is merely set up – as the girl will find Walter sitting alone in the park later in the film’s emotional-wollap of a pivotal scene, fraught with subtext, unexpected twists and above all else, empathy.

Please be forewarned – this is not an easy scene to watch due to the subject matter, but it’s perhaps the mirroring of damaged souls which makes it so powerful and worth analyzing.


Empathy, as noted by Hodges & Klein in Regulating the costs of empathy: the price of being human. Journal of Socio-Economics: 

“has many different definitions that encompass a broad range of emotional states, including caring for other people and having a desire to help them; experiencing emotions that match another person’s emotions; discerning what another person is thinking or feeling; and making less distinct the differences between the self and the other.”

In this pivotal scene from The Woodsman, it’s important to note an audience’s empathy for a character can be influenced by that character’s relationship with others.  We see much of what others think of Walter, with many making little attempt to understand him or give him a chance to redeem himself; the cards are stacked against him much like the setting and events defining Red’s perspective in The Shawshank Redemption.  What gives this scene its power and makes it resonate is the fact that Robin isn’t about to become a victim – but that she is a victim…and to make matters worse, it wasn’t by some stranger in a park.


This is the face of a man about to give in to his uncontrollable urges.

Prior to this, Walter’s confession to Vicki came with a disclaimer: “It’s not what you think. I never hurt them.”  This is easy to say for the perpetrator whose life continues far removed from the crimes they’ve committed against others, never having to see the everlasting effects manifest first hand.  So naturally this is Walter’s perspective – one that’s challenged when he’s actually confronted with a victim and sees first-hand the pain someone else has caused from the very same behaviors.

When Robin says she doesn’t like it when her father asks her to sit on his lap, Walter has absolutely no understanding as to why she wouldn’t because he’s only seen the act from his perspective.  You can see it in his face as he holds her hurtful gaze, the smile withering from his face as he tries to comprehend, ultimately asking confusedly, “Why not?”

Robin, in turn, goes into avoidance and withdraws, prompting Walter to ask a bevy of questions based on his personal experience.  This is Walter’s attempt to understand – to make a connection – to have empathy.  Robin, however, battles her own inner feelings – clamming up and then gazing through her binoculars as a means of escaping from the moment…but it works for only so long until she breaks down in tears.


Empathy is an emotional connection that happens between two people. Here, in a surprising turn, the would-be victim demonstrates empathy for Walter.

It’s this moment that Walter begins to understand the emotional pain a victim has to live with, his head shaking as he reaches a level of self-awareness that begins to shift his perspective – but then the unthinkable happens: while looking away in shame, Robin stares at him with her own level of empathy and despite the pain it’s caused her, becomes selfless and offers herself up – to which he declines, unable to indulge his demons any longer now having realized the pain he’s put others through.

But the scene doesn’t end here.  An eleven year old child, whose innocence we can only guess has been lost at this point, still manages to do a very innocent thing: she shows compassion and gives Walter a hug.  By no coincidence, Robin – as she notes “named after the bird” – symbolizes growth, renewal and the wisdom of change, things her character influences upon Walter.


Robin gives Walter the gift of another’s – a VICTIM’S – perspective…and a hug.

At the climax of the film shortly afterward, Walter finds a level of redemption by attacking what turns out to be a pedophile stalking children right outside his window.  Having noticed the man earlier, the viewer, at the point, is unaware of the man’s culpability – even so after the fact – until the Sergeant appears knocking at Walter’s door, his demeanor changed toward him as he recounts the attack on the known pedophile with an understanding of who did it.

Empathy in The Woodsman is essential to the story’s structure and overall message.  It has a clear purpose in telling the story of change for Walter and is used effectively to drive that change – perhaps less important for the audience in its relationship to him than the other characters, particularly Robin.  But it’s through her act in return – her empathy as a victim – that helps transform Walter and give the story depth and meaning.

In the next article, I’ll explore a much loved, blockbuster Pixar film that surprisingly does the complete opposite and used empathy all wrong.  Until then, here’s the trailer for The Woodsman.







Posted in Empathy, Perspective, Story Structure | 6 Comments

Show, don’t tell and its relationship to empathy in screenwriting.

“MYTH: ‘Show, don’t tell’ is literal-Don’t tell me John is sad, show him crying.”

REALITY: ‘Show, don’t tell’ is figurative-Don’t tell me John is sad, show me why he’s sad.”

 -Lisa Cron, Wired For Story.

batman the joker batman the dark knight 1680x945 wallpaper_www.wallpaperno.com_66

Robbing a bank is so easy, even a joker can do it. But screenwriting? That’s no joke.

One of the most difficult things for writers to do is write lean, narrative descriptions that are succinct in conveying their intended meaning to an audience.  We hear the words “trust your readers” without really putting what it means into context, passages often becoming overwritten, vague, non-specific and meaningless as a result.  Much of this comes from an inability to convey specific visual cues to the reader, making them more of a passive observer to a story rather than an active participant to it – but some issues can also be attributed to the overlooked facet of set up and pay off (the cause and effect relationship) of “Show, don’t tell.”  Understanding the virtues of both is necessary if one wants an audience to truly engage with their writing.

In Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers From the Very First Sentence, Lisa Cron makes the distinction between the literal and the figurative and how all too often writers choose to do what they believe is correct in showing an emotion as it pertains to the scene.  However, what they fail to do is recognize in the realm of storytelling, everything is about set ups (cause) and pay offs (effect), including emotions.  Showing someone crying over the death of another isn’t enough; we must have an understanding of what the deceased meant to the other in order for us to feel and derive meaning ourselves while watching the scene.   In other words, it’s the set up that provides context for the pay off – and you know the movies that don’t do this effectively because your friend sitting in the next seat will nudge and ask you, “Why’d he do that?”


Put the pen down and exercise your brain instead. Wired For Story is recommended reading.

So why is this important?  Plain and simple: Empathy.

As discussed in the article Empathy: your story’s best friend and matchmaker for your audience, there are seven universal basic emotions: fear, contempt, disgust, anger, sadness, happiness and surprise.  Recognizing them isn’t merely enough; we must have a context to give them meaning and furthermore, we need a scale in which to measure their intended effects.  That scale, or measuring stick, is relational to the set-up or as Lisa says, the figurative Why?

In one amateur script I read not too long ago, the main character’s family is killed within the first three pages.  By page four, we’re shown him gasping, with tears in his eyes.  What followed was more or less melodrama; none of the relationships had been adequately set up to justify our having any feelings of connection to the character’s grief.  Simply put, we didn’t know (or care) about these characters or their relationships to one another to warrant our feeling much of anything for them.  As a reader, we were being told how to feel rather than actively shown why.

From the author’s perspective, they were showing and not merely telling (telling as being from a reflective point, looking back where all immediacy is lost.)  After all, the family members died a glorious death on the page and it was shown with visual flair…right?  To him,  that was the “cause” and the anguish afterward was the effect – however, that anguish, while meaningful to the character, was meaningless to the reader because ultimately, the emotion – the power of the scene – needed to come from an established relationship between the characters that engaged the audience who, in turn, invested their own emotions in them.

Contrast this with the (albeit lengthy) set-up of a young William Wallace in Braveheart, a small portion shown below.

It’s the crafting of the story here, the investment in the characters and their relationships to one another that show where William Wallace’s drive and purpose comes from later in the story.  This particular scene showing the burial of Wallace’s family is also poignant because we had the scene prior showing his relationship to his father and one of the best lines of the movie, “I know you can fight.  But it’s our wits that make us men.”

Almost everything we need to know is set up early here in the backstory.  From the conflict with Longshanks to the love story with Murron and how those two threads tragically intertwine, we’re active participants to the events as they happen so that when she suffers her unjust fate, we feel every bit of emotion William does and understand the figurative portion: Why?

The burial of Murron essentially mirror’s that of Wallace’s father, both wordless, each family suffering the loss of a loved one.   Although the clip here cuts short Murron’s father’s act of forgiveness, in each case the emotions the audience feels is clearly conveyed not only through the characters and their reactions – but also as a result of witnessing the immediacy of the set ups (cause) and pay offs (effect).  This “backstory,” had it been delved out in the main narrative, would never have worked – but it does as is because it gives everything else that happens context.

While this may work well for a post-analysis of the film or story, there is still merit in re-examinging what Cron refers to as the “myth” as it pertains to storytelling – how it’s all conveyed on the page.  While it’s important to show the effects of sadness (e.g. “crying”), where many writers struggle is writing in a way that conveys, with clarity, the emotions of a character dramatically.  Instead, they’ll often resort to a line such as “George wipes his face, dismayed.”  The word “dismayed” ends up being our cheat sheet to the reader as to how the character feels internally, but in reality, it should be self-explanatory via the action taken (George wipes his face), depending on the context (set up).

In other words, the level of clarity the reader obtains from a character’s emotion is pursuant to the quality of the action as written on the page.

By explaining “what” the feeling is, we inadvertently take the reader out of the story – robbing them of experiencing it which, in turn, allows them to be an active participant as they continually ask themselves “what does this mean?” rather than having it told to them.   This is why experiencing the story through its characters and their emotions makes for a more engaging read – and when done properly, as we’re about to see, a level of clarity and empathy can be obtained within the reader.

With seven universal emotions, many of them used repeatedly throughout the course of a screenplay, the challenge becomes how can they be conveyed without saying the same thing over and over?   The short answer is twofold:  1) don’t write the emotion and 2) it depends on your character.  Emotions, while universal, stem from the inside.  They’re internal and it’s not “visual” to state the emotion itself – not to mention in doing so, we’re not defining the meaning of the emotion in terms of to what degree.  What defines characters are their actions.  In turn, it’s these actions – and how they’re written – that cue the reader into the mindset of the character.


Wow, the view from inside is REALLY different!

How many times have you read something along the lines of “Mikes enters the room” or “Mike walks into the room”?  That’s not only telling, it’s shortchanging your character an opportunity to define himself.  Does the context (what the scene is about/the cause) result in Mike stumbling into the room?  Could he bolt?  Dance?  Creep?  Sneak?  All of these can be useful in giving the scene more context, or we could give the reader a visually negative impression of Mike himself by layering the action with Anthropomorphism by saying “he slithers into the room.”

Likewise, a woman waiting for the test results from her doctor isn’t going to just “sit in the doctor’s office a nervous wreck.”  A nervous wreck is how she feels inside so the question is, as a writer, how do you go about conveying that emotion outwardly?  Again, it depends on the character.  She could sit slumped with her arm pinned to her chest, oblivious to a child smiling at her.  She could be in total denial and carry on like she’s at the hairdressers instead.  Or she could repeatedly unlock and lock the clasp on her purse.

Anger is particularly popular emotion in screenplays, but depending on the character it can  be conveyed in a number of outward expressions/actions.  Sarcasm and passive-aggressiveness are two ways anger manifests itself in dialogue, but some characters may very well do nothing but smile while others repeatedly cut people off while talking.

In A Few Good Men, we get a taste of a number of actions fueled by Col. Nathan R. Jessep’s anger, contempt, confidence, disgust, disbelief, frustration, rage, pride, among many other emotions that play out like a sliding scale until we get an explosion:

They key here is to identify the prevailing emotion(s) in a scene and find ways to dramatize their outward manifestation.  In A Few Good Men, those emotions come rapid-fire because they’re volleyed back and forth as a result of Lieutenant J.G. Daniel Kaffe’s questioning – each one spurning a new emotional beat in the conversation that becomes a game of hot potato, one character upping the other in intensity.  But it’s those beats that ultimately provide us with that measuring stick, from contempt all the way through to the explosive admission, giving the scene its power (and meaning.)

Understanding these two virtues of “Show, don’t tell” will go a long way to ensuring your audience develops empathy and an understanding why your characters are the way the are, act the way they do, say the things they say, etc.  Knowing this, a good challenge to partake in rewriting is to go through a script and identify scenes that are emotionally charged, looking for words that tell the reader what’s going on and replace them with specific actions that help define your character.  Do this and your reader will become more engaged, putting the pieces together for themselves much like we do in real life via non-verbal forms of communication.

If you find yourself getting stuck – keep in mind, write the reaction to the emotion showing its manifestation externally, not the emotion itself.  A good resource for any writer is Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi’s The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression.  This is an invaluable tool that takes those seven universal emotions and breaks them down into a number of commonly used terms associated with each, providing examples in terms of mental responses, internal sensations and physical signals.


A writer’s BFF: an emotional thesaurus – and you won’t even need a tissue while reading it.

Posted in Empathy, Story Structure | 3 Comments

Demystifying the “two-hander” approach: why it’s important to know in writing your story.

“Writing is thinking. To write well is to think clearly. That’s why it’s so hard.”                                                                                                                          -David McCullough

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As we’ll find out later, two hands are better than one.

In a recent Scripnotes podcast, Making Things Better By Making Things WorseJohn August and Craig Mazin voiced disdain for textbook theories, and much of it rightly so, while discussing the vague topic of a “two-hander” that ultimately seemed no better or worse than those patterns concepts found in the same books they criticize.  As John describes: 

“A two-hander is a story with two important characters, where basically both characters are roughly equally important in the progress of the story. So, romantic comedies are generally two-handers, but really it applies to a lot of other kinds of movies, too. Lethal Weapon is a two-hander. The Sixth Sense is a two-hander. Identity Thief is a two-hander…generally each of the characters have something that he or she wants. And sometimes they have a shared goal, but they each have their own individual goals.”

The concept, as John states here, seems easy to grasp – but on closer scrutiny,  his explanation seemed to muddy some waters.  First, there appear to be a number of qualifiers and exceptions in his statement that results in a lack of clarity leaving us with two truths: it’s not bound by genre and it involves two important characters.


Do you see a two-hander here? They both seem to want the same thing…

Secondly, could this be an illustration of the pot calling the kettle black?  Both John and Craig have a history of criticizing text-book how-to’s, gurus and story analysts alike for seeing patterns and selling formulas, something Craig himself stated further into the article:

“Things that happened, the whats and the whens are connected to the why, I think. Everything is a choice. Yes, you can certainly see the patterns. Pulling patterns out of movies and saying, ‘Well, it does seem like typically the hero experiences a low point at the end of whatever we think of as Act 2.’ Absolutely. Well noticed.

Here’s another observation: it does certainly appear that as we progress into the summer months that the day grows younger. Neither of those statements, the first statement about screenplays won’t help you write a screenplay. The second statement about the lengthening of days will not help you create a universe.”

The problem here – and plenty of irony to be found, too – is there’s typically more clarity from those often criticized.  Granted, there are a number of merits in John and Craig’s argument if not wholehearted agreements with their overall sentiment – it’s just John readily admits later that Craig’s “really been a huge disservice to screenwriters everywhere…because this is a thing that should be straightforward and you made it completely un-straightforward.”  Perhaps a contributing factor to the problem is that perhaps too much time was devoted to form – the “what” it is – rather than the function – the “why” it is.  We’re told (sort of) what a two-hander is, but never really in a way that we understand its function or purpose in a story.


Whatever could the importance of a “two-hander” be here? John and Craig kind of left us hanging…no pun intended.

So why do some stories have this “two-hander” approach and others don’t?  What is its function in a story?  Why do some genres have them versus others?  Does this mean there’s two main characters?  Why do they sometimes have the same goal and other times they have separate goals?  Where do we find some clarity in all of this?

Simply put, “two-hander” is about perspective.  If we take a step back and look at the big picture using The Shawshank Redemption as an example, we see two characters, Andy & Red, whose rolls are often confused.  Taking a previous article discussing this into consideration, we note the story’s theme as an outcome from the climax (hope is a good thing) and the choice the main character has to make: get busy living, or get busy dying.  That choice is the culmination of two perspectives, Andy’s vs. Red’s, as dramatized throughout the story.


Friends don’t necessarily think alike: Red and Andy have very different views on how to go about solving their problems, adding a whole other level of conflict to the story than that explored through just the typical antagonist vs. protagonist angle.

In this sense, the story’s theme – what the author has to say about about the value of hope (and not just “hope” itself) – is explored by means of an argument.  In other words, story is a form of persuasion, and the best means of being persuasive is to explore multiple sides of the argument.   Having two characters with their own perspectives is part of the means in which the theme and argument is explored, one character ultimately forcing the other to see their differing point of view and forcing them to either remain steadfast in their approach or change.   Whichever the case may be, the outcome is what the author wishes the audience to walk away in terms of their feeling about the main character and story itself.  This is why it’s important to have something to say, to have your stories “be about something,” because theme, context, subtext, plot, conflict, everything factors into it (which Craig alluded to when saying “the plot is the character, is the theme, is the dialogue, is the narrative, is the choices.”)

In addition, as John states, the characters can often want the same thing, but conflict – and a differently level of conflict than that found between protagonist vs. antagonist – can arise simply between their perspectives of how to go about achieving the shared goal.  This, in turn, makes a story richer, deeper and more complex because often times it’s where the heart and soul (read: emotions) truly reside.

In The Shawshank Redemption, the plot, the setting, the dialogue, almost everything tips toward Red so that we feel and acknowledge his perspective as the main character – and that’s why the ending works as well as it does.  We’re also privy to Andy’s perspective: from suds on the roof to the opera playing over the prison’s loudspeakers, we have those moments of light shining amongst the darkness – but it’s not overwhelmingly so, otherwise the ending wouldn’t have worked.  There had to be a sense of doubt which is why we’re placed squarely in Red’s shoes, his voiceover after being released from prison showing him at his lowest point (likewise, we read into Andy’s emotions, mostly through Red, with regards to his “shitty pipe-dreams,” leading us to believe he’s on the verge of suicide.)

In The Sixth Sense, the “two-hander” is between Malcolm and Cole.  Malcolm, as the main character, is trying to resolve the story’s central problem of “what’s wrong with Cole.”  His perspective, however, is based on his background which dictates there must be some kind of psychological explanation.  Cole, however, has a completely different perspective: he’s haunted and sees dead people.

These two perspectives clash and form the basis of Malcolm and Cole’s relationship, a dramatic tug-of-war if you will, where at some point, one eventually finds truth in the other’s point of view.  In this particular case, Malcolm has a perception problem – but it’s only through his interactions – his relationship – with Cole that he’s able to finally see the truth for what it really is: he’s a ghost himself.


That awkward moment when it all makes SENSE and you realize the kid has been talking about YOU the entire movie.

In Braveheart, the relationship between William Wallace and Robert the Bruce is central to the outcome: both want the same thing, but go about their attempts to achieve it differently.  Wallace has the tangibles that Robert the Bruce needs – the courage and conviction to actually lead – yet their relationship struggles to find a foothold amongst the incessant back and forth pulling of the nobles’ ideology which leads to disunity and betrayal.   But it’s ultimately Wallace’s conviction – thematically symbolized by his wedding cloth, the wedding itself a symbol of unity – that influences Robert the Bruce, who, upon Wallace’s death, finds the courage to unite and lead Scotland to her freedom on the battlefield.


“You have bled with Wallace, now bleed with me.” Wallace’s influence is felt on Robert the Bruce who becomes the leader Scotland needed to win her freedom.

In Star Wars, Luke is a main character with a lot of raw skills and a chip on his shoulder to boot, constantly testing his abilities against others in an effort to prove himself.  As we learn through Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, Luke is reckless and has too much of his father in him, but in Star Wars, that’ tempered by Obi-Wan’s perspective as he mentors Skywalker in the ways of the force.  It’s Ben’s influence, even after physical death, that prompts Luke to stop testing his abilities.



The result is a choice – a leap of faith – as Luke turns off his equipment and blows up the Death Star, resolving his personal flaw and solving the central plot’s problem in a scene where all the story’s throughlines comes together at once.

It’s these distinctive perspectives, or what Dramatica calls throughlines, which help writers to explore the nature of the argument their making.  Three of the four throughlines have been discussed and exemplified, each offering a different perspective available to the human experience:

Main Character throughline – the “I” perspective, as seen from inside the main character representing the audience’s position to the story.

Influence Character throughline – the “You” or alternate perspective which essentially provides the second element of a “two-hander.”

Relationship Throughline – the “We” perspective, wherein the main character and the influence character hash out the passionate argument of the story, one ultimately adopting the other’s perspective.  It’s those moments when Red and Andy clash over music being something that can’t be taken from you.  Hope being a dangerous thing.  Refurbishing an old boat being nothing more than a “shitty pipe-dream.”  It’s Cole asking Malcolm “How can you help me if you don’t believe me?”  It’s William Wallace’s impassioned speech telling Robert the Bruce if he would only lead, he too would follow.

It should be noted, not all main characters change – William Wallace being a good example.  Rather, he holds firm to his convictions and influences others around him to change (meaning the influence character can either the one who changes, or changes the main character as a result.)


But what about us? What are we all doing here?

The last throughline is that of the Overall Story which is essentially the plot as it pertains to the story goal.  It’s “what are we all doing here?” – in Star Wars, it’s a battle between the Rebellion and the Empire.  In The Shawshank Redemption, everyone’s dealing with an innocent man in prison.  In The Sixth Sense, everyone’s affected in some way or another by Cole’s problem – therefore playing a role in the story.  In Braveheart, everyone’s involved – on one side or the other – in the battle for Scotland’s freedom.

Craig’s words of wisdom later in the podcast ring true which makes this particular episode all the more ironic because screenwriting doesn’t have to be messy.

“Nothing that is worth anything can be achieved through simple steps. It is the children in us that are looking for parents to give us instructions to follow. And we are all children looking for parents everywhere. In the end, however, in order to achieve anything of value you have to be your own parent and you have to be a grown up and you have to confront the messiness of it.”

Dramatica itself provides a context in which everything has its place, an explanation, and a definition without resorting to a lot of mysticism and generalizations or  a “paint by numbers” approach.


You’ll note the lack of “happy little asteroids” here, but we can neither confirm nor deny those brushes are made from the finest of Wookie hair.

At the same time, it’s hard.  There’s no “simple steps” to follow and it has a steep learning curve – but with practice comes understanding and with understanding knowledge.  Putting that knowledge into writing begets wisdom until one day, everything clicks and YOU see story from a whole new perspective.

Perhaps more importantly, you finally see story with much more clarity than you ever have before and as already noted – to write well is to think clearly.




Author’s note:

This isn’t meant to be a sales pitch; rather it’s to let people know there are free resources available that are well-worth exploring.  As someone who’s read more than his fair share of books on screenwriting, hired numerous consultants, paid thousands (and THOUSANDS) of dollars over the years in coverage/notes, I know first hand where John and Craig are coming from with their sentiments – and rightly so – but everything one can learn from a book can’t, and shouldn’t be, so readily dismissed and I know this as well from first hand experience.  

When I first came upon Dramatica twelve years ago, I downloaded a trial version and quickly figured – even with a degree in Psychology – this is over my head and too much to learn.  But five years ago, in my quest for knowledge having gone through just about everything else from Lew Hunter to Syd Field to Robert McKee’s Story to John Truby to The Hero’s Journey and so on and so forth, I found myself coming back to Dramatica – my only regret was having dismissed it as quickly as I did.  Granted, I honestly believe there are stages of learning and perhaps I just wasn’t ready for it my first go-round at the time – and truth be told, the more I learned about other people’s perspectives on story, the better prepared I became for Dramatica…and I STILL don’t consider myself an expert (though the first draft of the first script I wrote using it received some pretty high praise and some fans in the process – a testament to my belief first drafts don’t have to be crap despite what many people parrot.  Plan your work and work your plan.)  

If you’re interested in learning more about the theory, you can visit the Dramatica website where there are any number of free resources, analysis, links to user communities, writer groups, etc.  Or you may find any number of articles at Jim Hull’s excellent Narrative First blog helpful as they go into much more detail on all the various facets of Dramatica’s story theory.  Understanding just a few of the key concepts may be enough to shift your own perspective.  

Be forewarned: it’s difficult.  It requires hard work, dedication, practice and application.  And perhaps that’s the point Craig misses on the formula approach: sure people want an easy solution, a formula, a step approach – but you still have to be willing to do the heavy lifting.  After all, nobody ever lost weight by simply reading a how-to book.  









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Empathy: your story’s best friend and matchmaker for your audience.

“COGNITIVE SECRET: Emotion determines the meaning of everything— if we’re not feeling, we’re not conscious.

STORY SECRET: All story is emotion based— if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading.”

–Cron, Lisa (2012-07-10). Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence (Kindle Locations 36-37). Ten Speed Press. Kindle Edition.


Getting a read on Judy Barton (Kim Novak), cloaked by “supernatural” green light in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo. After being solicited for a date by Scottie who notes she reminds him of someone (dead), Judy replies “Why, because I remind you of her? That’s not very complimentary. And nothing else?”

In the last article, I briefly mentioned the concept of mirroring which has been a hot topic in neuroscience for the last two decades.  The much debated notion is neurons fire both when an animal acts and when another observes the same action performed, providing the neural basis of the capacity for emotions such as empathy.  Empathy, in turn, is the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another sentient or fictional being.

Empathy, however, is not sympathy.  If you’re not sure of the difference, please take a moment to watch this wonderfully articulated short video taken from research professor Dr. Brené Brown:


Sympathy, simply put, is indicative of the old saying “I feel for you, but I can’t quite reach you.”  It disconnects whereas empathy draws us in and makes us feel what characters are feeling.  Knowing how to utilize empathy effectively, as we will see later on, can distance us from the a character and actually draw us closer and align our emotions to an accomplice to murder instead.

Before delving further into empathy itself, it’s important to note that there are seven universal basic emotions:

Expression pack 7 emotions

Seems like many of these defined the stills of Red in the previous article on The Shawshank Redemption.

While there are ultimately many emotions, these form the core and others can often be attributed as variations (shame, for instance, is closely linked to sadness.)  Using these seven in conjunction with one word to describe the purpose of a particular scene while outlining can help to ensure not only does it have meaning, but an emotion to be conveyed to the audience to give it that meaning as well.  As Lisa Cron said, emotions determine the meaning of everything – particularly because they are the means by which interpret a character’s perspective while also providing that much-needed measuring stick.


Apparently the guy from Scanners experienced a 13.

So how do we go about building empathy into our characters so the audience will connect with them?

Well, it goes back to perspective: we need to know who the character is, what makes them tick, what their strengths are, their fears, insecurities, etc.  These will form the basis of their schema and how they view the world around them – which, in turn, allows us to see how they react to events. Let’s face it, that’s what a story is really all about: not just “events” happening on the page or screen, but how a main character (or others) react to the events.  Their reaction, as discussed in the last article, is our window into what they feel and think and the basis for our empathy for them.

In addition to establishing perspective, there are a number of attributes that can help establish empathy with a character:

1) Vulnerability – This is important because a character who is vulnerable is an authentic character, opening themselves up to expose warts and all.  Any film that utilizes a “fish out of water” concept is essentially creating vulnerability by exposing the character to an unfamiliar environment.

2) Valued Traits – These can be things such as loyalty, courage, love… think of Samwise Gamgee and how he would not allow Frodo Baggins go it alone on his quest in Lord of the Rings.

3) Universal Goal – As mentioned in a previous article regarding A Beautiful Mind, while John Nash pursues a goal of creating a new theorem, it’s merely a means to an end to achieve something higher: mattering in the eyes of others (acceptance and acknowledgement of one and their efforts).  The theorem isn’t particularly relatable to the audience, but wanting – and needing – to connect with others and mattering certainly is.

4) Selflessness/Altruism – putting your character in a position where he cares about others more than he does himself – despite the potential consequences – can create a strong sense of connection as it did with Frodo Baggins.


Courage. Loyalty. Altruism. All on display in Lord of the Rings.

5) Unjust Treatment – Rather self-explanatory, one doesn’t need to look any further than last year’s Academy Award Winner for Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave, for a prime example.

6) Change – A character trying to change their circumstances, or those of another, can arouse empathy much like we saw in The Blind Side.

7) Suffering – Whether it’s internal conflict or external, physical pain, we tend to empathize with those who suffer – something Schindler’s List portrays both equally in spades.

While this isn’t a definitive list by any means, it’s enough to give one an idea of ways to build empathy into their characters.  Ultimately these work best when the character itself plays a specific function within the story and has some thematic relevance – otherwise it may come across as forced.

Alfred Hitchcock, the master of suspense that he was, deserves much credit to his, and his writers’, ability to create – and manipulate – empathy within an audience.  A character like Alex Sebastian in Notorious, despite being a Nazi sympathizer, shows more empathetic traits than his hardened American secret agent counterpart T.R. Devlin (Cary Grant), a charmless man with questionable morals at best.

In Psycho, we follow the story of Marion Crane, watching her acknowledge the mistake she’s made, head into the shower in an effort to “cleanse” herself with the intent of righting a wrong – only to be jolted with her death, our empathy suddenly transferred to Norman Bates who has to clean up after “Mother.”  While he goes to great lengths to cover-up the crime, we can’t help but feel the conflict within as he’s asked questions by Detective Arbogast then later essentially bullied and wrongly accused (well assumed, though ultimately motive-wise at least) by Sam Loomis.

But it’s Hitchcock’s Vertigo which best demonstrates the power of empathy, shifting narrative – and audience – perspective with a heavy dose of dramatic irony from detective Scottie Ferguson to small town girl Judy Barton, accomplice to murder.

I’m going to make the assumption those reading have actually seen the film.  If you haven’t…you can find a brief synopsis here, but please note: it recently topped Citizen Kane in critics’ poll of greatest films – so do yourself a favor and watch it!



Having written her confession to Scottie, Judy Barton contemplates whether he might be capable of loving her the way he loved Madeline.

Initially criticized for revealing the fact that Judy played the role of Madeline in a murder set-up using Jimmy Stewart’s Detective Scottie and his fear of heights as a fall-guy/witness to Madeline’s suicide, the event actually allows two things: 1) an objective look at what really happened and 2) gives us a look into Judy’s world and how the events affected her (I’ve bolded words/phrases that convey empathetic traits):

“Dearest Scottie, and so you found me. This is the moment that I dreaded and hoped for, wondering what I would say and do if I ever saw you again. I wanted so to see you again just once. Now I’ll go, and you can give up your search. I want you to have peace of mind. You’ve nothing to blame yourself for. You were the victim. I was the tool and you the victim of Gavin Elster’s plan to murder his wife. He chose me to play the part because I looked like her. He dressed me up like her. He was quite safe because she lived in the country and rarely came to town. He chose you to be the witness to a suicide. The Carlotta story was part real, part invented to make you testify that Madeline wanted to kill herself. He knew of your illness. He knew you’d never get the stairs to the tower. He planned it so well. He made no mistakes. I made the mistake. I fell in love. That wasn’t part of the plan. I’m still in love with you, and I want you so to love me. If I had the nerve, I’d stay and lie, hoping that I could make you love me again as I am, for myself, and so forget the other and forget the past. But I don’t know whether I have the nerve to try.”

While exposing her as an accomplice to murder, the scene also shows Judy as being very much human with a desire, a need, compassion toward Scottie’s plight, that she was herself used, and that she’s in love – something that wasn’t intended to happen on her part.  As the scene ends, she questions her own courage, deliberates, and rips the confession up to emphasize that yes, she does indeed.  If only she knew what she was getting herself into.

These traits alone don’t necessarily make us empathetic toward her – it’s the plot and how it unfolds, particularly Scottie’s treatment of her and her reaction as a result that ultimately makes us identify with her.  Scottie, still obsessed with Madeline, attempts to make Judy over into her very image – and the audience watches in both suspense and horror as to how far his obsessive drive will go, clearly showing one effective way to shift empathy is to decrease empathetic traits in another.


The moment of horror for Judy when she realizes Scottie’s obsessive desire to make her over into the image of not just any dead woman – the one she played as a role in an accomplice to murder.

In this case, Scottie’s objectification of Judy – despite our knowing the truth – works against him.  The closer he gets to achieving his goal, the more Judy reacts emotionally, his unhealthy and obsessive drive met only by her own desire to be loved – and we watch it all unfold as she becomes selfless, letting herself be made over into the very image of his obsession.

Scottie ultimately doesn’t care anything about “Judy” or her persona, only that she looks and acts like the “Madeline” he fell in love with which was nothing more than an illusion to begin with – something of an irony as he’s just as much of a representative of the past having a hold on her as she, as Madeline, is to him.  That she’s essentially “made over” into the role of Madeline twice only adds another level altogether.   This obsession creates cognitive dissonance, making the audience uncomfortable with Scottie’s behavior and thus distancing themselves emotionally from him.

While shopping for clothes, Scottie insists on a certain suit Madeline wore:

JUDY:          Scottie, what are you doing?

SCOTTIE:    I’m trying to buy you a suit.

JUDY:           But I loved the second one she wore.  And this one, it’s beautiful.

SCOTTIE:     No.  None of them are right!

JUDY:            You’re looking for the suit she wore, for me.  You want me to be dressed like her!

SCOTTIE:     Judy I just want you to look nice, I know the kind of a suit that would look well on you.

JUDY:            No, I won’t do it!

SCOTTIE:      Judy…Judy, it can’t make that much difference to you.  I just want to see what you would look like–

JUDY:            No!  I don’t want any clothes, I don’t want anything…I just want to get out of here.

SCOTTIE:      Judy do this for me!

And of course, she does – but it isn’t enough.  Later, a sullen Judy pleads in Scottie’s apartment, but his obsession fires up again.  First the clothes, then the color of her hair…then finally the way she wears it until Madeline is reborn:


This all said, it’s important to note that empathy has absolutely nothing to do with a character being “likable.”  Scotties’ obsession might be creepy in a necrophiliac way, but it’s witnessed with a sense of psychological malaise as we understand from the first two thirds of the film what he went through and how it affected him.  Likewise, Judy as an accomplice to murder isn’t necessarily meant to be “likable,” but we identify with – and understand – her emotions as if we were putting ourselves in her shoes (she ultimately proves to be worse off than Scottie in many ways.)

In both cases, empathy is the outcome from having defined the characters’ perspectives and the ability for the audience to recognize the emotions that are being experienced by one character to another on the screen – regardless of whether we like them or not – and that’s what matters most because if we’re not feeling, we’re not reading.










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Tunneling to the heart of The Shawshank Redemption: a look inside theme and perspective and how they combine, continuing to give audiences hope twenty-years after the film’s release.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

                           -Viktor E. Frankl


Who amongst us hasn’t felt imprisoned by life’s events at one time or another, leaving us with the bitter taste of hopelessness?  No matter what we do, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel and the darkness consumes us, affecting our beliefs which, in turn, manifest themselves into our attitudes and ultimately our behaviors.

Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl survived the horrors and atrocities as a prisoner in the Holocaust by finding meaning in all forms of existence, including suffering.  In his book Man’s Search For Meaning, he describes the effects of lost faith:

“The prisoner who had lost his faith in the future – his future – was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay.”     p. 47

Those such as Frankl who choose to find meaning in their daily existence realized “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how,” a sentiment that rings true in The Shawshank Redemption, where an innocent man’s imprisonment and subsequent resiliency to lose all hope influences a fellow inmate to forgo his years of cynicism and embrace a very similar notion to Dr. Frankl’s:

“Remember Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

This quote from Andy Dufresne represents the theme for The Shawshank Redemption, a movie that continues to cast a spell on audiences twenty years after its release – demanding repeated viewings while retaining’s #1 ranking as voted by regular users.   But for any theme to work, we must have context and events that shape its argument and more importantly, a window to experience it through: the main character.

As mentioned in the previous article on No Country for Old Men‘s ending, some stories clearly delineate the function of a  main character vs. that of the protagonist (main character = perspective, protagonist = drive).  The key is the main character’s perspective is through whom the author wishes the audience to experience the story’s emotions, and ultimately its theme, in what neuroscientists call “mirroring” – and in The Shawshank Redemption, that character is Red.


Let me tell you a story about my friend Andy Dufresne – but in telling it, it’s really MY story and how he changed my perspective on life. I just don’t want you to realize that until the end.

Choosing Red for this function places the audience squarely in his shoes so we experience the story through his eyes.  Sure, we experience it somewhat from Andy’s P.O.V., too, but that’s necessary to balance the thematic argument that we get glimpses of.  Whether it’s playing Mozart, building a library or teaching another convict, Andy’s function is to provide the force of change for Red who’s diametrically opposed to the belief and power of hope.  As demonstrated in one of the film’s key scenes, Andy’s perspective after spending two weeks “in the hole” harkens back to Dr. Frankl’s quote:

FLOYD:              So they let you tote that record player down there, huh? 

Andy tapping his head and his heart:

ANDY:                 It was in here…and here.  That’s the beauty of music.  They can’t get that from you.  Haven’t you ever felt that way about music?  

RED:                    I played a mean harmonica as a younger man.  Lost interest in it, though.  Didn’t make much sense in here.  

ANDY:                 Here’s where it makes the most sense.  You need it so you don’t forget.  

RED:                    Forget?  

ANDY:                 Forget that there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone, that’s there’s something inside that they can’t get to, that they can’t touch.  It’s yours.  

RED:                    What are you talking about?  

ANDY:                  Hope.  

RED:                     Hope.  Let me tell you something, my friend.  Hope is a dangerous thing.  Hope can drive a man insane.  It’s got no use on the inside.  Better get used to that idea.  

ANDY:                  Like Brooks did?  

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“Let me tell you something…” In reality, it’s the absence of hope that ultimately does Brooks in.

While Lisa Cron doesn’t distinguish a main character from a protagonist in her book Wired For Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence where she views the protagonist as the function of main character, her sentiment about perspective P.O.V. is an important one:

“But here’s something writers often don’t know: in a story, what the reader feels is driven by what the protagonist feels. Story is visceral. We climb inside the protagonist’s skin and become sensate, feeling what he feels. Otherwise we have no port of entry, no point of view through which to see, evaluate, and experience the world the author has plunked us into.”

-Cron, Lisa (2012-07-10). Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence (Kindle Locations 321-323). Ten Speed Press. Kindle Edition. 

Very few are representative of the Vicktor Frankls and Andy Dufrenses of the world. Rather, most of us – if not all – have struggled with finding meaning in feelings of hopelessness at one time or another in our lives, making Red a more fitting vessel from which we experience the effects of the story’s theme through.

The world of the story itself, the prison, is the context in which the theme is placed: finding hope in the most hopeless of situations.  The dark, cold place is a reflection of the main character’s worldview with regard to the theme.   The events that happen, from murder to rape, far outweigh the affirming values of hope and in order to give credence to Red’s perspective and continually test Andy’s as the story’s protagonist.   But as Cron further notes, it’s the effects of the events that are experienced – and measured – by the story’s main character that give them meaning:

“Everything in a story gets its emotional weight and meaning based on how it affects the protagonist. If it doesn’t affect her— even if we’re talking birth, death, or the fall of the Roman Empire— it is completely neutral. And guess what? Neutrality bores the reader. If it’s neutral, it’s not only beside the point, it detracts from it.” – Ibid, locations 775-778.  

In almost every scene we have what is an essentially stoic and reserved Andy, described early on by others as “a particularly icy and remorseless man” and as “that tall drink of water with a silver spoon stuck up his ass” in an effort to garner sympathy via misjudgment – but not empathy which is key for an audience’s connection to a character, a fact Entertainment Weekly‘s Owen Gleiberman felt a detriment to the film, stating “laconic-good-guy, neo-Gary Cooper role, Tim Robbins is unable to make Andy connect with the audience.”

Whether he’s about to be thrown off the rooftop or in the courtyard talking about his desires of Zihuantanejo, we’re barely afforded much of a reading towards Andy’s emotions by design because it’s Red and his reactions to the myriad of situations Andy finds himself in that the audience obtains perspective and a means to measure the emotional weight of them by – hence we’re meant to connect with Red.  Even the thought of a pick-axe tunneling through a wall is dismissed by the audience through Red’s reaction once he receives it.  “It would take a man about six hundred years to tunnel under the wall with one of these,”  – and we believe him.

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We feel concern for Andy through Red’s incredulous reaction to his having stopped work.

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So little hope as expressed in a single note. Incidentally, keep your ears tuned for the harmonica played in the soundtrack when Red happens upon the clearing in the Buxton hayfield – it’s a subtle reminder and callback to this scene.

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We sense the irony of Andy’s statement, “On the outside, I was an honest man. Straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook,” through Red’s reaction to it.

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“I don’t think I can make it on the outside, Andy. I’ve been in here most of my life. I’m an institutional man now. Just like Brooks was.” It’s important to note Brooks function in the story serves as a potential outcome – this is why the comparison is made more than once to hammer home what happens, as Frankl said, when we lose faith (or in this case, hope).

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We feel the uncertainty and dismay toward Andy’s fate as felt through Red. While we’re also cued into Andy’s sentiments from his own words and actions in the courtyard scene, it’s clearly a ruse: we’re meant to feel what this man is feeling at this moment.

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Confusion: we know as much of what became of Andy as Red does.

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Contempt for the system. Instead of giving the parole board what he thinks they want to hear, Red finally unleashes his authentic self and becomes a free man.

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Learning a life lesson from Andy: hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies. The epiphany of the story’s theme here resonates with the audience and leads to Red’s deliberation and decision: get busy living, or get busy dying.

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Choosing to get busy living, Red “…find(s) I am so excited I can barely sit still or hold a thought in my head. I think it is the excitement only a free man can feel, a free man at the start of a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. I hope I can make it across the border. I hope to see my friend and shake his hand. I hope the Pacific is as blue as it has been in my dreams. I HOPE.”

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Author’s proof: choosing to believe in hope brings a new attitude which ultimately results in a joyous conclusion.

By placing the audience squarely in the shoes of Red – whether it’s via his voice over narrative or the numerous point of view shots, particularly as he enters his parole hearings – we’re attuned to what he thinks, what he feels, and most importantly, what he believes.  Those beliefs, as mentioned previously, are reflected in his attitude and ultimately his behavior, providing the stark contrast to Andy’s perspective of hope.

As the film nears its emotional climax we experience the thematic argument’s weight on Red as he’s overwhelmed with his new sense of freedom: one path, devoid of hope, leads to the same fate as Brooks’.  As a self-confirmed institutionalized man, there’s little hope to be had on the outside if he can’t even squeeze a drop of piss without asking for permission first.

RED:             There’s a harsh truth to face: no way I’m going to make it on the outside.  All I do anymore is think of ways to break my parole so maybe they’d send me back.  Terrible thing to live in fear.  Brooks Hatlen knew it.  Knew it all too well.  All I want is to be back where things make sense, where I won’t have to be afraid all the time.  

What Red speaks of in terms of institutionalized is really conformity and it’s through conformity he’s lost any sense of authentic-self, always saying to the parole board what he thought they wanted to hear.   Once we start to conform to another’s beliefs without using our fundamental right and responsibility to think critically of them – whether it’s religion, political or psychological institutions – we strip ourselves of the freedom to choose our own attitudes.  Freedom, however, entails responsibility and the only thing stopping Red is the promise he made to Andy – a responsibility – sending him on something akin to a spiritual journey to solve a mystery: what’s in the box Andy left behind for him?

The tree in which he finds it buried next to feels like it’s part of hollowed ground, but inside that box is the film’s ultimate message – one which leaves Red to finally see the truth in Andy’s perspective…to believe…to choose a new attitude: get busy living, or get busy dying.  That’s goddamn right – and the audience, having been in Red’s shoes since Andy’s arrival to Shawshank, couldn’t agree more as he breaks parole and heads across the border having ultimately chosen his own way.





If you find this analysis intriguing, you may also find Dramatica, The Next Chapter in Storytelling, of interest.  Although not written specifically utilizing the theory, many of the article’s points can be attributed to its concepts.  A complete Dramatica analysis for The Shawshank Redemption, including a link to a two-hour group video analysis, can be found here.    

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